American community finds a new home in Rome

IMAGE: CNS photo/Junno Arocho Esteves

By Junno Arocho Esteves

ROME (CNS) — After years in exile from the church they had
called home for the past 95 years, the American Catholic community in Rome moved
to a new church they can finally call their own.

Located just a few steps away from the U.S. Embassy to Italy, St. Patrick’s
Church is the new official “mission
for the care of souls for U.S. faithful residing in Rome,” said Paulist Father Greg Apparcel,
rector of St. Patrick’s.

U.S. Catholics in Rome, guided by the Paulist Fathers, had
called the Church
of Santa Susanna their parish since 1922. But the cloistered Cistercian nuns,
who have had a presence at the historic parish since 1587, found the American
presence distracting and made various attempts over the years to evict them.

“I tried to understand their position,” Father
Apparcel told Catholic News Service Aug. 7. “It was their home, and they felt we
invaded their home. We felt it was our home, (but) they didn’t agree with that.”

While there was no dispute regarding the ownership of Santa
Susanna, the pastoral responsibility of the church had belonged to the Paulist
priests for decades.
In 2012, however, tensions rose when several large signs were placed in the
church that stated the Cistercians owned the church.

Father Apparcel told CNS that he appealed to Cardinal Pietro
Parolin, Vatican secretary
of state, who in
turn asked Pope Francis to intervene in the matter and allow the American
community to return to the parish.

However, the Paulist priest said, “we were discouraged
from coming back there because the Cistercian community owns the church, and
they felt that they just wanted it to be them.”

the Vatican encouraged Father Apparcel to move to St. Patrick’s Church, a parish run by Augustinian priests from Ireland who
decided in 2012 to leave their ministry in Rome due to “a lack of priests.”

Several meetings between the Paulist Fathers and the
Augustinian community led to an agreement that the church would become the new
parish for American Catholics residing in Rome. The Augustinian community,
Father Apparcel added, leased
to the U.S. community the church and a hall currently being renovated to
house offices, a
library and classrooms “rent-free.”

“They have been incredibly generous and hospitable to
us. No question about it,” the Paulist priest told CNS.

While the disagreement with the Cistercian nuns at Santa Susanna left
relations at times strained, Father Apparcel said there are no hard feelings
between the two communities.

“We had a very nice, very friendly conversation,” he told CNS. “They
said they had nothing but good feelings for the Paulist Fathers and the
American community. And (they) offered their prayers and asked us to pray for them.
They were sincere.”

The nearly 400 families that make up the American parish in
Rome, Father Apparcel added, are also “relieved” that they finally
have their own church rather than attending in Mass in different parishes.

Despite the odds, Father Apparcel cared for the spiritual
needs for the flock during that five-year period, often racing from one parish
to another to celebrate Mass in English while Santa Susanna remained closed to
the American community.

“I’ve gone through all the emotions from A-Z. The first
year was really rough because I felt like, ‘How much worse can it get?’ I mean, basically, you’re kicked out of
your church!” he said.
“In the beginning, I felt like I was a failure, that it was my fault.”

However, with the support of his parishioners and Paulist Father Steve
Bossi, his good friend and vice rector of the parish, Father Apparcel said he realized that
“even though we weren’t altogether in one place, we were still an
identifiable Catholic community in Rome.”

“This is a really visible example of the fact that the
church is not a building, that the people are the church, that the community
existed and even thrived during this period,” Father Apparcel told CNS. “It doesn’t matter
that we didn’t have a church. Though I’m glad we do now!”

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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